307. Benny Hill (Arranged & Conducted by Harry Robinson, with The Ladybirds) – Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) (1971)

1971 was a real mixed bag of a year for number 1s. There was early glam, reggae, pop, a former Beatle, and bookending the year were novelty songs by two popular TV comedy stars. The Christmas number 1 belonged to Benny Hill, a once much-loved comedian who became incredibly unfashionable before his death in the 80s. But in 1971, people wanted saucy innuendo in their comedy, and Hill was one of the best at that.

Alfred Hawthorne Hill was born 21 January 1924 in Southampton. His father and grandfather had both been circus clowns. After Hill left school he worked at Woolworths, a bridge operator and a milkman. It is unknown whether he drove the fastest milkcart or not.

In 1942 Hill was called up for World War Two, and trained as a mechanic in the British Army. He also served as a mechanic and searchlight operator in Normandy before being transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the war ended. Having decided a career in showbusiness was for him, he changed his name to Benny Hill in honour of his favourite comic, Jack Benny.

Hill struggled on the radio and stage, but found his home on TV, achieving his big break after sending scripts to the BBC in 1952. The Benny Hill Show of the 50s wasn’t that different from its 80s version, a mix of music hall, parody and bawdiness. Bar a few brief spells with ATV between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967, he remained with the BBC until 1968.

Jackie Wright, the little bald man who Hill liked to slap on the head, joined his troupe in the 60s. I hope his head was insured for all those decades of slaps.

Within that time he also appeared in films, most notably Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and The Italian Job (1969).

The Benny Hill Show became a Thames Television show in 1969 and ran intermittently for 20 years. It is this version he is mostly remembered for, gurning and saluting away next to scantily clad girls, running around to Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax. This very British show became popular overseas too, with Hill acting as an ambassador for the famous British seaside postcard brand of humour.

Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) began life as a song on a 1970 edition, as you can see here. Most of the double entendres are in place, with only small differences like Ernie’s age being 68 rather than 52. Releasing records was nothing new for Hill, who had been releasing comedy singles sporadically since Who Done It in 1956, and Ernie was just one of the tracks that made up his Words and Music album, released earlier that year. It’s unlikely he had an inkling as to how popular it would become.

Inspired by Hill’s time as a milkman for Hann’s Dairies in Eastleigh, Hampshire, the song is written as a Wild West-style ballad about the adventures of Ernie Price, whose milk cart is pulled by horses, sung by Hill in a comedy Cornish accent and joined by his regular backing group, The Ladybirds. Ernie and bread delivery man ‘Two Ton’ Ted from Teddington are feuding for the heart of Sue, a widow at number 22 Linley Lane. Cue the smut.

I can remember Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) being played to me at school when I was pretty young, and most of the innuendo was lost on me, despite growing up watching Carry On films. Looking at the lyrics now, I can see that’s because it’s not actually very rude at all. Granted, there’s reference to crumpet, and these lines are a bit saucy:

‘He said you wanted pasturised
Coz pasturised is best
She says Ernie I’ll be happy
If it comes up to me chest’

But other than that, Hill manages to skirt anything too risqué. And that might be why it became so big. If anything, it’s more a song for children in the style of 1968 Christmas number 1 Lily the Pink, so timing had a lot to do with it. I can’t imagine adults sat around listening to this and laughing hysterically in 1971… perhaps 1961, but I may well be wrong. And it certainly doesn’t make me laugh in 2020, yet it still has a certain charm… a relic of a bygone age, perhaps helped by the promo film above, co-starring Henry McGee and Jan Butlin.

What doesn’t make me laugh is the fact that one of our worst ever Prime Ministers, David Cameron, has declared this one of his favourite songs ever on more than one occasion. But you can’t blame Benny Hill for Brexit.

Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) held firm for four weeks, even stopping T. Rex from having three number 1s in a row with Jeepster. Hill only released one more single, Fad Eyed Fal in 1972. Meanwhile The Benny Hill Show rattled on, with a film compilation of highlights from 1969-73 called The Best of Benny Hill released in cinemas in 1974. Despite some old-fashioned racism poking fun at the Chinese, this was unbelievably still being shown every now and then until recently.

As the 80s dawned, the show began to feature the ‘Hill’s Angels’, sexy ladies who would dance and appear as comic foils for Hill. But this was the decade in which such ideas looked increasingly outdated as alternative comedy grew ever more popular, and acts like Ben Elton led the way as the media began to disown him.

Looking back, the campaign against him seems too aggressive. Yes, he had enjoyed a good innings and it was high time he made way for more PC, sophisticated comedy by the end of the 80s, but the likes of Elton suggesting he was to blame for people being raped and violence against was unfair. More often than not, Hill was being chased by the girls, not the other way round… ok, all their clothes fell off… but still…

The Benny Hill Show was finally taken off air in 1989. A quiet, private man when the cameras were off, he disappeared from the public eye completely.

It looked like he might be due a comeback in 1992. Thames began airing edited compilations of repeats due to public demand, and he was on the verge of signing with Central Television, but his health failed him. He had a mild heart attack that February, and on 22 April he was found dead in his armchair in front of the TV. Hill had died aged 68, two days previous, and one day after another old-school comedy giant, Frankie Howerd.

Written by: Benny Hill

Producer: Walter J Ridley

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11 December 1971-7 January 1972)

Births:

Socialite Tara Palmer-Tomlinson – 23 December
Singer Dido – 25 December
Conservative MP Philip Davies – 5 January

Deaths:

Footballer Torry Gillick – 12 December
Scottish footballer Alan Morton – 12 December
Pilot Charles C Banks – 21 December

Meanwhile…

29 December: The United Kingdom gave up its military bases in Malta.

30 December 1971: The seventh James Bond film – Diamonds Are Forever – was released. It saw Sean Connery return to the role after George Lazenby declined to come back.

4 January 1972: Rose Heilbron became the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey.

298. T. Rex – Hot Love (1971)

In March 1971, singer-songwriter Marc Bolan appeared on Top of the Pops to promote T. Rex’s second single Hot Love, as shown below. His stylist, Chelita Secunda, had suggested he wear glitter under his eyes, and it was this appearance that spearheaded the glam rock movement and gave Bolan the stardom he had strived for. Forget ‘Mungo-mania’ – ‘T. Rextasy’ was the first true pop phenomenon in the UK since ‘Beatlemania’. Pop was rejuvenated.

Bolan was born Mark Feld on 30 September 1947. He was raised in Stoke Newington, East London until the Felds moved to Wimbledon in southwest London when he was a young boy. Around this time he, like so many of his contemporaries, fell in love with rock’n’roll, particularly stars like Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. He was only nine when he was given his first guitar and he formed a skiffle band, and soon after he was playing guitar for Susie and the Hula Hoops, whose singer was 12-year-old Helen Shapiro, who would have two number 1s in 1961 with You Don’t Know and Walkin’ Back to Happiness.

Feld was expelled from school at 15 and around this time became known as ‘The Face’ due to his good looks. He joined a modelling agency and appeared in catalogues for Littlewoods and John Temple wearing Mod getup just as The Beatles were first making waves.

In 1964 Feld made his first known recording, All at Once, in which he aped Cliff Richard. Next, he changed his name to Toby Tyler when he became interested in the music of Bob Dylan, and he began to dress like him too. His first acetate was a cover of Blowin’ in the Wind.

The following year, he signed with Decca Records and changed his name to Marc Bowland, before his label suggested Marc Bolan. First single, The Wizard, featured Jimmy Page and backing vocalists The Ladybirds, who later collaborated with Benny Hill. None of his solo singles, in which he adopted a US folk sound, made any impact.

Simon Napier-Bell, manager of The Yardbirds and John’s Children, a struggling psychedelic rock act, first met Bolan in 1966 when he showed up at his house with a guitar, proclaiming that he was going to be a big star and wanted Napier-Bell to work with him. Bolan was nearly placed in The Yardbirds but was placed in John’s Children as guitarist and songwriter in March 1967 instead. The group were outrageous, and Bolan proved to be a good fit, writing the single Desdemona, which was banned by the BBC for the lyric ‘lift up your skirt and fly’. Only a month later, they toured as support for The Who but were soon given their marching orders for upstaging the headliners (Bolan would whip his guitar with a chain). John’s Children also performed at The 14-Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexander Palace that month. Yet by June Bolan had left the group after falling out with his manager over their unreleased single A Midsummer Night’s Scene.

Bolan formed his own group, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and after one rushed, disastrous gig, he pared the band down to just himself and their drummer, Steve Peregrin Took, who would play percussion and occasional bass alongside Bolan and his acoustic guitar. For the next few years, Tyrannosaurus Rex amassed a cult following, with Radio 1 DJ John Peel among their biggest fans. Bolan’s fey, whimsical warbling could get a bit much at times, and I speak as a lover of 60s psychedelia, but the signs of a very talented singer-songwriter are there right from their debut single Debora and first album, the brilliantly titled My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (1968), produced by Tony Visconti. Peel even read short stories by Bolan on their albums.

This was the last album to feature Took, who had been growing apart from Bolan, who was working on a book of poetry called The Warlock of Love. Bolan’s ego didn’t take kindly to the thought of Took contributing to songwriting, so he replaced him with Mickey Finn for fourth album Beard of Stars, released in March 1970. David Bowie’s follow-up to Space Oddity, The Prettiest Star also came out that month, with Bolan on guitar. The single tanked.

As the new decade dawned, Bolan was outgrowing Tyrannosaurus Rex, and was simplifying his songwriting while reintroducing an electric band setup to the mix. Visconti had been abbreviating the band’s name to T. Rex for a while on recording tapes, and while Bolan didn’t appreciate it at first, he decided to adopt the name to represent the next stage of development.

While preparing to release their first material in their new incarnation, Bolan replaced The Kinks as headlining act at the Pilton Festival at Worthy Farm, the day after Jimi Hendrix died on 19 September. 50 years on, it’s known as Glastonbury Festival, the king of the UK festival scene.

T. Rex released their first single, Ride a White Swan in October. This, simple, catchy layered guitar track caught on, and finally Bolan had a hit on his hands, narrowly missing out on the number 1 spot due to Clive Dunn’s Grandad in January 1971. T. Rex’s eponymous debut also went top 10 in the album charts. Bolan was now famous, but he needed to capitalise and go one better to avoid being a one-hit wonder.

Hot Love was recorded on 21 and 22 January at Trident Studios – the week Ride a White Swan peaked at number two. Seizing the moment, Bolan decided to flesh out T. Rex’s sound and adopt a classic four-piece line-up. With new bassist Steve Currie making his recording debut, Bolan and Visconti hired Bill Fifield as drummer, leaving Finn relegated to just handclaps. After helping out on T. Rex, this single saw the return of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman on backing vocals. The duo had been founding members of The Turtles, and as Flo & Eddie had recently been part of Frank Zappa’s group The Mothers of Invention. Kaylan and Volman’s slightly unhinged harmonies became an integral part of the classic T. Rex sound.

Although Ride a White Swan served notice that Bolan was moving on from his old self-limited sonic boundaries, the lyrics were still very much the Tolkien whimsy of your average Tyrannosaurus Rex track. Hot Love featured a more simplistic, direct lyrical approach. Bolan is merely telling you about his lover.

Taken as read, much of T. Rex’s lyrical output can seem childish, sometimes even ridiculous, yet most of the time Bolan pulls it off, and he does so here. I’ve always admired the chutzpah of the lines ‘Well she ain’t no witch and I love the way she twitch – a ha ha’ and the charming camp of ‘I don’t mean to be bold, a-but a-may I hold your hand?’ but I’d never noticed the ludicrous ‘I’m a labourer of love in my persian gloves – a ha ha’ before. My favourite lyric of recent memory, right there.

There’s no point spending too much time dissecting Bolan’s words though, it’s more about the feel they add to his songs, and Hot Love feels sexy, which isn’t a label you could ever give his Tyrannosaurus Rex material. It’s fascinating to me how a voice that’s so fey, singing such daft words, can at the same time be so sensual.

The tune displays a key ingredient of glam rock – 50s rock’n’roll. Bolan has updated a simple bluesy riff and, thanks to the input of Visconti’s glossy studio sheen and string arrangement, updated it for 70s audiences. Kaylan and Volman’s backing vocals keep a certain strangeness in place and stop things getting too smooth, but this is a high definition Bolan that hadn’t been heard before, and Hot Love is just one reason why Visconti is rightly one of the most famous producers of all time.

The second half of Hot Love shifts into a ‘La-la-la-la-la-la-la’ Bolan, Kaylan and Volman singalong, akin to Hey Jude, but faster and weirder. It’s a real earworm, and no doubt helped it to number 1, but I find it goes on a bit too long, and I prefer the first half personally. Having said that, it really does show up the previous number 1, Baby Jump, as lumpen and turgid by comparison. A much-needed breath of fresh air in the charts, to put it mildly.

Released on 12 February on Fly Records, Hot Love rocketed up the charts, in part thanks to those famous Top of the Pops appearances. Bolan displayed star material in spades, and was perhaps the first musician since Elvis Presley to prove that image could be a vital ingredient in pop. Looking every inch the rock star with his glitter and guitar, he made glam rock about appearance as well as the sound, and other acts like Slade and friend/rival Bowie were watching and taking notes.

The 70s were often a drab, moribund decade. Glam rock may have been a peculiarly British phenomenon that didn’t catch on elsewhere in the way Beatlemania did, but in the UK it was sorely needed, and brought about some of the best number 1s of the next four years. Bolan was integral in this.

T. Rex would prove to have a formula that Bolan couldn’t advance much from, and his star burnt out quick, but in the early 70s he gave pop the kick up the arse it needed. There are better T. Rex songs. However, Hot Love is one of the most important number 1s of the decade.

Written by: Marc Bolan

Producer: Tony Visconti

Weeks at number 1: 6 (20 March-30 April)

Births:

Scottish actress Kate Dickie – 23 March
TV presenter Gail Porter – 23 March
Scottish racing driver David Coulthard – 27 March
Cricketer Paul Grayson – 31 March
Scottish actor Ewan McGregor – 31 March
Cricketer Jason Lewry – 2 April
Conservative MP Douglas Carswell – 3 April
Liberal Democrat MP John Leech – 11 April
Actress Belinda Stewart-Wilson – 16 April
Scottish actor David Tennant – 18 April

Deaths:

Actor Cecil Parker – 20 April

Meanwhile…

1 April: All restrictions on gold ownership were lifted in the UK. Since 1966 Britons had been banned from holding more than four gold coins or from buying any new ones, unless they held a licence.

11 April: 10 British Army soldiers were injured in rioting in Derry, Northern Ireland.

15 April: The planned Barbican Centre in London was given the go-ahead.

18 April: A serious fire at Kentish Town West railway station meant that the station remained closed until 5 October 1981.

19 April: Unemployment reached a post-World War Two high of nearly 815,000.

27 April: Eight members of the Welsh Language Society went on trial for destroying English language road signs in Wales.
Also on this day, British Leyland launched the Morris Marina, which succeeded the Minor.